The Powers That Be

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This Friday, the Air Force will award Francis Gary Powers – the pilot of the ill-fated U-2 spy plane shot down by the Soviets in 1960 and held captive for 21 months – a posthumous Silver Star. It’s the latest in a series of sorrys the U.S. has offered Powers’ family following his poor treatment at the hands of the the government he risked his life to serve. His grandchildren are slated to accept the medal, more than 50 years after their grandfather came home to a national cold shoulder amid the chilliest days of the Cold War.

General Norton Schwartz, the service’s chief of staff, will honor Powers for his “exceptional loyalty” while enduring tough interrogations in Soviet custody from May 1960 to February 1962. A Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile downed his U-2 while he was flying a secret spy mission over Soviet territory. He ultimately was released in a spy swap.

Aviation historian Walter Boyne wrote of the shameful way the nation greeted Powers when he finally made it home:

By all rights, Powers deserved to be decorated at the White House—he had earned the honors. His many previous overflights had gathered incredibly important information, and he had shown his steadfast heroism in withstanding the torments of the Soviet system. Instead, he was badly treated by the government for which he had risked life and freedom. Powers resented that, upon his return, he was smeared by a rash of ill-founded commentary. Writers and commentators complained righteously that Powers had not blown up his aircraft, not committed suicide, and even that he had managed to survive the Soviet imprisonment.

Far worse were the official positions taken by the very men who had backed the program, especially the CIA. The pilot had obeyed his orders exactly and defended himself and his country ably while on trial. The CIA failed to support him publicly or provide an adequate cover story for an event they knew was inevitable—a downed U-2.

Powers died in 1977 when the news-gathering helicopter he was flying near Los Angeles crashed.

In 2000, on the 40th anniversary of his doomed flight, the Air Force awarded Powers a Distinguished Flying Cross.

At this rate, he may earn the Medal of Honor in 2032.